Are You a Curious Board Member?

| by Bert Armstrong

Recently I’ve been helping my mom with some issues she’s encountered in her home.  They found a small, slow, hidden leak in a pipe underneath the house that evidently has been going on for several years without detection.  As soon as we found it, we called a plumber to fix it and they subsequently found that the years of water dripping - ever so slowly and inconspicuously - has caused the sub-floor to rot.  This will require a major repair, so we immediately called our insurance company who sent an adjuster. Bottom line is that the insurance company has a conveniently obscure clause in the policy that allows them to deny our claim for assistance with this issue.  I guess we should have asked more questions, read more of the fine print, questioned why such exclusions exist, etc.  But we didn’t think to ask any of this when things were going well. 

This frustration reminds me, in a way, of what happens to smart, well-meaning volunteers when invited to join the board of directors of their local nonprofit. Most of us get caught up in the feel good parts of the opportunity, like the chance to make a difference supporting a great cause in our community, serving alongside respected community and business leaders, etc.  But in our enthusiasm to join, we often forget, or just don’t know, to ask a few important questions:

What do you do and why should I care?

Sometimes we assume we know more about nonprofit organizations than we really do.  I was speaking recently to a new board member of a statewide nonprofit who was lamenting the fact that she believed she was joining the board of an organization that provided "services" to children, only to find out that most of the organization’s work centered on public policy research and advocacy.  While the work is indeed important and noble, this board member felt called to a mission that provided more basic, direct relief for those impacted by the issues. 

What do you need and expect from me as a board member?

How many of us have agreed to serve on a board without asking the basic questions related to the responsibilities for governance, fundraising, leadership oversight and financial management?  I have seen too many boards where the skills, competencies, and relationships necessary to have meaningful impact on an organization’s success do not match those attributes of the board members they have recruited.  From board meeting attendance, to personal giving, to time spent engaged in special events and mission-related activities, understanding what is expected of a board member is crucial to helping ensure their effective and satisfying service.

How can I help?

Just like we should have done with my mom's insurance company, the first two questions are things that should be asked at the beginning of any relationship a new board member has with a nonprofit.  If not, there is great risk that the board member will end up being disappointed with the experience and the nonprofit will not benefit fully from the member’s passion and attributes.  However, once on board, everyone should be focused on making the most of whatever the situation is.  That can only be done when board members are willing to seek out ways to make a difference.  Whether it is helping with strategic planning, fundraising, monitoring the budget, or offering effective direction to the chief executive, board members must take initiative once they have accepted the role of helping govern and sustain the mission of their organization. 

So ASK!  Ask if the mission and service opportunity being presented lines up with your own values and interests.  Ask what you can do that will be most helpful.  Ask about the things you don’t understand.  Ask about things that concern you or that you hear are concerning to those in your community.  Ask if there are opportunities for supporting and encouraging staff and volunteers.  Ask if there are different ways to look at programmatic or financial challenges. Ask what outcomes the work of the organization is producing.  Ask for training - for yourself and your fellow board members to be better fundraisers.  Ask if your chief executive is happy and fulfilled in their work. Ask, as part of a thoughtful evaluation process, if you, your fellow board members, and your chief executive are doing a good job.

What else do you need to know as you discern how you can best serve your organization?  Just ask.  

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